Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Time for Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

In December 1933, a young Brit picked up a freighter to Holland from London to begin a walk across Europe to Constantinople (Istanbul). He'd knocked about in school, never quite fitting into to the routine, although clever and widely read. He held no express goal for this journey except to complete it. After a brief stint traversing Holland, he crossed into Germany and began trekking up the Rhine Valley. After achieving southern Germany, he turned east, picking up the Danube, following the river’s course into Czechoslovakia. He concludes this portion of his journey at a bridge crossing from Czechoslovakia into Hungary. It will take him until January 1935 to reach his goal of Constantinople and a lifetime to complete the three volumes that recount his journey. The final installment, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos won’t be published in the U.S. until March 2014.

Three traits make this book so impressive. The journey across Europe, poised roughly midway between its two great 20th century cataclysms, puts the reader in a time machine with young “Paddy”. Fermor begins his youthful journey in the year that Hitler came to power, and he encounters Brown Shirts in beer halls and an exuberant thug who’s sloughed off his Communist trappings—physical and mental— to dive headlong into the Nazi movement. As Fermor journeys forward towards his destination, he moves backward in time. He sleeps under the open stars, in barns, in taverns, in hostels, in homes, and in castles. Fermor's youth and charm seem to provide an open sesame to ordinary folk, to the middle class, and to the fading aristocracy. He develops a web of connections among the well-to-do that opens doors as he travels into the next town or castle. He moves from pauper to prince and back with elegant ease. He deftly portrays the characters and scenes that he encounters, often providing digressions on history, flora and fauna, and landscape as he makes his way. A brief side journey to Prague elicits a short foray into the Defenestration of Prague. 

The second factor that adds luster to this work arises from the fact that he wrote this first installment over 40 years after his journey. Invited to write a magazine article about the virtues of walking, Fermor instead wrote this book (published in 1977). Thus, except from some brief excerpts taken directly from his journal, we have the work of a mature, worldly, and erudite man reconstructing his adventures as a very young man. The exuberance of youth mixes with the perspective of age, although the narrative is uninterrupted and of a single voice. We meet two selves speaking through one voice.  

Finally, Fermor's prose exceeds poetry in its beauty and grace. Fermor's work supports my contention that prose can exceed poetry in its beauty, fueled by more extended metaphors, descriptions, and narratives—if penned by the hand of a master such as Fermor. Poetry mimics music in its fleeting melody and open suggestions. Prose, like painting, is more plastic and invites detailed consideration, revealing nuances of meaning as the text retards time of allow a deeper contemplation of the scene created. Others, like William Dalrymple, praise Fermor as one ofthe great English prose-stylists. I concur. Fermor paints verbal portraits and landscapes that rival a Turner or Constable in beauty. 

My brief review does not indicate a lack of merit or enthusiasm for this book; quite the opposite, my ability is inadequate to do real justice to this gem. I’ll leave you with a quote from a passage of the book to provide you a better representation of what Fermor accomplishes with his prose. The setting is at the end of the book, as Fermor stands on the bridge over the Danube between Czechoslovakia and Hungary on Holy Saturday evening: 

I too heard the change in the bells and the croaking and the solitary owl’s note. But it was getting too dim to descry a figure, let alone a struck match, at the windows of the Archbishopric. A little earlier, sunset had kindled them as if the Palace were on fire. Now the sulphur, the crocus, the bright pink and the crimson had left the panes and drained away from the touzled but still unmoving cirrus they had reflected. But the river, paler still by contrast with the sombre merging of the woods , had lightened to a milky hue . A jade-green radiance had not yet abandoned the sky. The air itself, the branches, the flag-leaves, the willow -herb and the rushes were held for a space, before the unifying shadows should dissolve them, in a vernal and marvellous light like the bloom on a greengage. Low on the flood and almost immaterialized by this luminous moment, a heron sculled upstream, detectable mainly by sound and by the darker and slowly dissolving rings that the tips of its flight-feathers left on the water. A collusion of shadows had begun and soon only the lighter colour of the river would survive. Downstream in the dark, meanwhile, there was no hint of the full moon that would transform the scene later on. No-one else was left on the bridge and the few on the quay were all hastening the same way. Prised loose from the balustrade at last by a more compelling note from the belfries, I hastened to follow. I didn’t want to be late.

Fermor, Patrick Leigh (2010-10-10). A Time of Gifts (Kindle Locations 4710-4721). John Murray. Kindle Edition.

And continue I shall with Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople from the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, the next installment. As a little added bonus, I’m very much looking forward to hearing his biographer, Artemis Cooper, speak @ #JLF about her Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure published in 2013.